Suffolk County Falls in USDA Census of Statewide Agricultural Sales

Photo by Lindsay Morris

Agriculture stat geeks get an extra bump every five years when the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service releases its latest census of agriculture. The 2017 census dropped mid-April and local farmers and employees at the extension are just starting to go through the vast amount of data to assess trends and pinpoint areas where gaps or changes will help them apply for state and federal grants.

“It’s a helpful snapshot of the current state of affairs,” says Nora Catlin, the agriculture program director of Cornell Cooperative. “We use it for historical purposes, to see how many farmers and the average size of the farms and how many new farms.”

Census watchers in Suffolk County are also checking the numbers as a source of pride; as of the 2007 census, according to a 2012 report by the state comptroller, Suffolk was number one in agricultural sales in New York State. The 2017 census has Suffolk County down to number four with total sales of $225,578,000—but, if one removes animals and animal products, including milk, Suffolk County comes in first in total sales in crops. This also includes horticulture, which is far and away Suffolk’s largest agriculture industry with a record $160,302,000 in sales as recorded in the 2017 census. That includes ornamental plants, shrubs and sod.

Participation in the census is voluntary, and data is collected from surveys submitted by farmers.

“Being number one in gross sales was a point of pride for us,” says Ron Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. “But I’ll take a lower ranking when you consider we’re doing it on 30,000 to 35,000 acres and some counties upstate have up to 100,000 acres.”

The data goes deep. In addition to learning the number of crop farms in Suffolk (604), we can also see where they fall according to the number of dollars earned, the number of employees, the age of the farmers and whether or not the owners work on the farm. And we can see the trend. In 1997, there were 721 farms. That’s a 29 percent decrease. But the number of smaller farms, which gross between $1,000 to $2,500, has increased 11 percent since 1997. But if we look back to the last census in 2012 it’s a 37.5 increase.

“I’m happy to see the increase in the number of small farms,” says Carpenter. “But we’re also seeing a decrease in actual gross income. Farmers deal in global commodity crops. They’re competing with New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It’s whoever gets it into the state the cheapest.

According to the census, Suffolk County is home to 53 producers of grapes. • Photo by Yvonne Albinowski

“The cost of doing business is going up,” he adds, mentioning the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act, about which there was a hearing with state senators on Long Island on April 26. The act would give farmworkers the right to a day of rest, collective bargaining, overtime pay, and, in addition, would extend disability and worker compensation benefits to agricultural laborers. “Farmers treat workers here with great respect,” says Carpenter, “but they have no way to pass these costs on.”

I looked closely at trends in grapes. The census does not break grapes down into juice grapes and wine grapes, but we can surmise that a high majority of grapes grown in Suffolk County are turned into wine. Upstate acres of concord grapes are used for juice and jelly.

In 2002, which is as far back as grape data is available online, there were 56 operations growing grapes in Suffolk County, which put us in fifth place statewide. Number one was Chautauqua with 584 operations, definitely concord country. Also there were 2,282 acres planted to grapes in Suffolk. In 2007, Suffolk had 68 operations, moving us up to number three, with 2,593 acres planted. In 2012, there were 70 producers with and 2,193 acres. In 2017 53 producers and 1,815 acres.

Poultry farming is taking flight in Suffolk. We now have 76 operations up from 27 in 1997. The business now brings in $15.5 million a year. In 2012 six farms were raising hogs; there are now 16. Fruit and nut trees, including berries, brings in $13.1 million. There are exactly two maple syrup producers, as there was in 2012, no prior info.

If the census data isn’t detailed enough for you, more specific surveys will be coming out over the next year, when NASS analyzes the numbers and goes deeper into each commodity, says Kevin Pautler, Deputy Regional Director of NASS in the Pennsylvania office. On May 31, they will release state and county profiles. It’s also possible to get on their mailing list.

By the time all the surveys are released, gathering data for the 2022 census will be underway.